US assures Israel no change in Iran policy after Trump offers talks — source

Jerusalem ‘completely surprised’ by US president’s proposal to meet Rouhani without preconditions, but still said to trust him

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and US President Donald Trump in the White House Oval Office, March 5, 2018 (Haim Tzach/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and US President Donald Trump in the White House Oval Office, March 5, 2018 (Haim Tzach/GPO)

Washington is assuring Israel that its policy on Iran has not changed after US President Donald Trump’s offer to meet his Iranian counterpart without preconditions Monday, an Israeli diplomatic source said.

“Senior American officials told Israel there is no change in its tough policies toward Iran,” the Israeli source said Tuesday.

“Israel is in continuous contact with the American administration,” the source added.

There was no immediate confirmation from the Trump administration.

The comment came a day after Trump said he was willing to meet with Iran’s leaders at any time and without any preconditions, just one week after dramatically threatening the country.

The statement caught Israel completely off guard, a diplomatic source told Israel’s Hadashot news.

Nonetheless, Jerusalem remains optimistic about Trump’s hard-line policy and the outcome of renewed US sanctions against Iran.

“We trust the president, the level of coordination is very high,” a source said, according to the report.

Official Israel cheered in May when Trump withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear deal forged under the Obama administration and with five other world powers, a move that sets in motion a renewal of sanctions against Iran that were removed once the landmark accord was implemented in January 2016.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been one of the fiercest critics of the deal, and had often criticized the talks between the Obama administration and Tehran, accusing the Iranians of bamboozling the US and other world powers.

Trump has vowed to try to strike another deal with Tehran to replace the pact he often called “the worst ever negotiated.”

The president — who has defied American foreign policy orthodoxy by meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un — indicated Monday he was prepared to sit down with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani anytime and without preconditions, should his counterpart want such a tête-à-tête.

“I would certainly meet with Iran if they’re ready to meet,” Trump said during a White House press conference.

Iran has reacted coolly to the offer, but a former adviser to the country’s supreme leader said Tuesday that Tehran should not reject a sit-down out of hand.

Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri, a senior cleric and member of the influential Expediency Council, said Trump’s suggestion Monday that he would be willing to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani should not be categorically rejected.

“It should be discussed in the Supreme National Security Council,” said Nategh Nouri, who is also a former aide to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, right, leading the Eid al-Fitr prayers at the Imam Khomeini grand mosque in the capital Tehran on June 15, 2018. (Iranian Supreme Leader’s Website/AFP)

Nategh Nouri said, “We have to contemplate” the gesture, but also cautioned, “We should not rejoice over this offer and not get excited.”

“Trump may take advantage of this over-excitement,” he said, the state-run IRNA news agency reported. “It could be a test for us.”

However, other officials indicated Trump would have to re-agree to the nuclear deal before any meeting could take place.

In Washington, a senior State Department official said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had no plans to meet with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif if they both participate at an Asian security forum in Singapore later this week. The official, who was not been authorized to publicly discuss Pompeo’s schedule, said there were “no plans for any engagement with Iran” at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum.

Pompeo will be in Singapore for the forum and related events on Friday and Saturday.

There had been speculation such a meeting might be in the works. On Monday, Pompeo met with Oman’s foreign minister in Washington ahead of his trip to Singapore. Oman, which has good ties with both Washington and Tehran, has served as a facilitator of previous talks between the US and Iran, notably during the Obama administration.

Pompeo told CNBC on Monday that he was onboard with the president’s invitation, saying Trump “wants to meet with folks to solve problems.”

But he appeared to add several qualifications: “If the Iranians demonstrate a commitment to make fundamental changes in how they treat their own people, reduce their maligned behavior, can agree that it’s worthwhile to enter in a nuclear agreement that actually prevents proliferation, then the president said he’s prepared to sit down and have a conversation with him.”

Trump has vowed to ramp up sanctions until Iran radically changes its policies, including its support for the Syrian government and regional militant groups, something the country’s leaders have long refused to do.

Austrian President Alexander Van Der Bellen, left, and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani attend a military welcome ceremony in Vienna, Austria, Wednesday, July 4, 2018. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)

Even though Trump said there would be “no preconditions” to talks with Rouhani, he also did not walk back from any of those earlier demands.

With the first US sanctions due to come into effect next Monday, the economy in Iran has already been hit, giving rise to growing fears of prolonged economic suffering. Another round, covering other types of commerce, including oil purchases, goes into effect Nov. 4.

Rouhani on Tuesday again suggested Iran could cause major disruptions in the Gulf region by attempting to block key shipping lanes, saying, “Iran has never sought tensions in the region and does not want there to be any problem for the world’s waterways, but it will never let go of its right to export oil,” the semi-official Mehr news agency reported.

Iranian protesters in central Tehran on June 25, 2018. (AFP Photo/Atta Kenare)

With the US sanctions looming, the Iranian currency has been in freefall, hitting a new low Monday, at 122,000 to the dollar on the thriving black market. It recovered slightly to 115,000 on Tuesday, but concerns are growing as Iranians have seen their savings dwindle and purchasing power drop.

Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, who heads the parliamentary committee on national security and foreign policy, suggested a U.S. return to the nuclear deal would be needed before Tehran could think of negotiating.

“There can be no negotiations with the Americans raising the issue of talks from the position of power,” he was quoted as saying on the website of the Iranian parliament, calling Trump’s decision to pull out of the nuclear deal the “biggest blow to diplomacy.”

Reformist lawmaker Mostafa Kavakebian questioned negotiating with Trump, calling him “untrustworthy,” and also said now was not the time for talks.

“If this negotiation [is] carried out in any form, then it will be considered as surrender, and the Iranian nation will not surrender,” he said.

Eric Cortellessa and AP contributed to this report.

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